Star-Maker Machinery

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory BY John Seabrook. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 352 pages. $26.

Are you a music lover who’s spent twenty years wincing whenever you hear the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Ke$ha, or Katy Perry th-th-thumping out of passing car radios? Or are you someone who does enjoy chart pop, but mainly as an emotional off-ramp during your afternoon commute or as a launching pad for a dance party?

Either way, you might side-eye the notion of an entire book by a New Yorker staff writer about how hits like “Umbrella” and “Since U Been Gone” were enabled by a cabal of moguls, producers, songwriters, and radio programmers, a disproportionate share of them from Sweden. Wouldn’t you prefer another oral history of the Greenwich Village folk scene or a memoir from a Rolling Stone?

Norton’s publicity department counters that maybe you’re a marketing or media person who would skim John Seabrook’s The Song Machine for tips on how the music industry transforms rhythmic and melodic ear candy into three-minute profit centers. Read this version of Salt Sugar Fat for music, they suggest, and learn how the recording business finds the “bliss point” of pop music, in much the same way that the vaguely sinister synthesists of supermarket snacks target your taste buds.

None of those constituencies will be satisfied by this book. It’s neither jeremiad nor tribute nor how-to. But readers with a broad cultural curiosity should devour it. Seabrook set out on this project because he wanted to understand what his grade-school-age son embraced so fervently when he could commandeer the car-radio buttons on their trips to school. Seabrook first heard it as trash but later understood it as a parallel to the bubblegum and girl-group music that first excited his own fandom, before that gave way to more-mature headphone sessions with Pink Floyd and the Chemical Brothers.

Yet this personal story of catalytic change is exiled to a sincere but not too deeply explored set of framing chapters. For the most part, Seabrook uses his reportorial skills to build a methodical studio-and-office-floor genealogy of the evolution of music culture at its more commercially rarefied heights over the past twenty years and the past ten in particular. The devil’s food cake is in the details.

At first I was annoyed that Seabrook ventures barely a tentative analysis of What It All Means. But, on reflection, this big-picture reticence proves an asset. Seabrook’s brief qualitative appraisals of his subject are the book’s weaker moments (especially a few paragraphs apparently based on a half-reading of neuroscience), and his own prior track record in that area is wobbly, given his buzzy but glib 2000 tract about popular and elite taste, Nobrow. More important, and with rare exceptions, his on-the-spot surveys of pop are lousy as cultural diagnoses, while close-up anatomies of the industry in action become great source documents in the long run.

Pop’s slippery way of articulating its zeitgeist and predicting what will last means that almost all probing music books are retrospective. Frontline reporting and reactions are jumbled into newspaper, magazine, and website archives, especially since the demise of Da Capo’s annual anthology, Best Music Writing (2000–11, RIP). Nearly all the most substantial chapters of Seabrook’s book would have earned a place in that series, notably his profiles of the interlinked producers Denniz PoP (Ace of Base, Backstreet Boys; also RIP), Max Martin (Britney Spears, Taylor Swift), Dr. Luke (Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus), and Stargate (Katy Perry, Ne-Yo, Beyoncé); Rihanna’s “topline” hook-writer Ester Dean; and Perry’s lyricist Bonnie McKee. Other parts of the book, for instance Seabrook’s portraits of boy-band producer Lou Pearlman, Perry herself, and Kelly Clarkson and American Idol, are oft-told tales, but necessary parts of the puzzle for less-pop-steeped readers.

The core of The Song Machine is a depiction of how the Top 40 (or “Contemporary Hits Radio,” aka CHR) hits of today are generated by an updated, technologized model of a “hit factory” structure that goes back to Motown, the soul-funk-disco Philadelphia sound, New York’s late ’50s and ’60s Brill Building, the Jazz Age songwriters’ row Tin Pan Alley, and (by one Swedish artist’s eccentric account) even the Renaissance studios of Florence: “One assistant does the hands, another does the feet, and another does something else, and then Michelangelo walks in and says, ‘That’s really great, just turn it slightly. Now it’s good, put it in a golden frame and out with it. Next!’”

In studios from Stockholm to LA, the masters dictate and then farm out the track-building to their inferiors. And yet, unlike more acrid critics, Seabrook suggests under his breath that today’s producers really are auteurs, whether in their exacting tastes or in their innate musicianship. You can’t read him describing the creative processes of Max Martin, a former Swedish metal-band vocalist who as a songwriter and producer has scored nearly two dozen more Top 10 hits than the Beatles, or the nearly as prodigious Polish-American Dr. Luke’s background as a virtuoso guitarist and Saturday Night Live band veteran, without realizing that the stereotype of modern music producers as lazy, unschooled button-pushers is nonsense.

The Song Machine’s highlights catch these artists in mid-creation or describing their techniques, whether switching a chorus written for one song into a different one or explaining why “melodic math” requires every syllable of a hit to mirror the tune, even at the expense of grammatical sense. Seabrook tries to blame this trend on the indifferent linguistic filters of the world-conquering Swedes, but of course it has a longer lineage, going back at least to Little Richard’s “Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom” and on through Kurt Cobain’s “a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido” and beyond.

Seabrook portrays gifted hit-makers and topline studio singers such as Ester Dean (whose solo career has never taken off despite her part in the Pitch Perfect film franchise) working through what he calls the “track-and-hook” process—sometimes during multiday camps in which several songwriters and producers develop songs for a single superstar’s album. Hook specialists like Dean improvise over premade beats and chords, throwing out dozens of good tries until they hear something with the potential to be a shiver-inducing “smash” hit; they tend to leave verses and bridges for post-inspiration busywork.

Some of the song machine’s newest features derive from globalization. As Bonnie McKee testifies, the flourishes of verbal cleverness that would have been prized by Tin Pan Alley or Leiber & Stoller get screened out when they’re tested on listeners who use English as a second language. Does this represent a degeneration of craft or an advance toward universality? Seabrook again reserves judgment. The book also departs from its US Top 40 through-line to report on new Korean pop (with its “cultural technology” techniques of precision-drilled, cosmetically modified adolescents singing in multiple languages and expertly executing “eye smiles”) and the possible ramifications of online streaming. These can seem like length-padding tangents, but they do raise the question of how much longer current hit-making methods will survive, particularly once China’s potentially huge pop market comes into its own.

Other sidelines appear here without generating quite the impact they deserve, including the question of whether the just-in-time post-Fordist studio productions of today’s song factories are more prone to formula and plagiarism than their predecessors were. Another, more troubling issue is the power of the renewed producer class when it comes to very young artists, not just in Korea but also in the cases of Pearlman’s contractual scamming (which Seabrook condemns) and the allegations of sexual abuse against Dr. Luke by the rapper Ke$ha, which Seabrook repeats but too easily (and unnecessarily) dismisses. And he sometimes seems to naively high-five his music-biz subjects for the blithe way they trade in the blatant sexual objectification of women.

If Seabrook is a little careless about sex, he’s doubly so about race. His narrative emphasis on the Swedish-pop takeover seems calculated to come across as exotic to American readers, but it comes at the cost of a balanced assessment of the Top 40 contributions of hip-hop and R&B in the past few decades. The producers Seabrook profiles are always dreaming of a perfect amalgam of the “urban” and the white-bread. Black music is a constant presence in The Song Machine, but it’s seldom given an opportunity to speak for itself.

Likewise, Seabrook doesn’t offer any consideration of country-music performers or producers aside from Taylor Swift—even though Nashville is the longest-standing song factory of them all and was commercially ascendant during the period he covers. Any reader drawn in by Seabrook’s narrative would be well advised to follow up with Eric Weisbard’s Top 40 Democracy, which provides a more sustained analysis of the ways that radio-music formats don’t just constrict creativity but create culture by calling diverse publics (geographic, ethnic, blue-collar, white-collar, female, budding, senior) into more self-aware assemblages.

That said, there are moments when Seabrook reaches broader insights. He cites the radio DJ and consultant Guy Zapoleon’s useful idea of a pop cycle that passes from an ideal state of “pure pop” into bland and repetitive “doldrums” that are then corrected by a phase of “extremes” (e.g., psychedelia, New Wave, early hip-hop, grunge, etc.) before finding balance again. Seabrook also considers the effects of radio consolidation under Clear Channel after the deregulating Clinton-era Telecommunications Act, and how MTV’s complexes about keeping its subcultural cool around the same time delayed the emergence of the new teen pop until the 1998 advent of Total Request Live, which let the network blame the Backstreet Boys videos on its own viewers. He hints at the way a song-factory model might permit more democratic access and outcomes than the typical critical lionization of the individualistic singer-songwriter. And while his framing story about coming back to the Top 40 through identification with his adolescent son is slight, it does raise questions about how the music we need reaches us in different phases of life.

There are superior books to be written, and read, about most of these subjects. Still, we should be grateful for the limited one Seabrook has produced. As befits its subject, it has bequeathed a trove of hook-laden material for future innovators to mimic—and creatively appropriate.

Carl Wilson is the Toronto-based music critic for Slate and the author of Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste (Bloomsbury, 2014).